Our Experience Talking to Undergraduates at the Field of Dreams Conference

By Kimberly Kaufeld and Daniel Taylor-Rodriguez, both postdoctoral fellows at SAMSI this year.

Kimberly Kaufeld at the podium

SAMSI postdoc Kimberly Kaufeld speaking at the Field of Dreams Conference in Arizona

A few weeks ago, Daniel and I had the pleasure of presenting and attending the Field of Dreams conference in Phoenix, AZ. The conference is supported by the National Alliance for Doctoral Studies in the Mathematical Sciences and is for underrepresented undergraduate students in the mathematical sciences. The conference hosted workshops on how to network at conferences, interview for graduate school, and talk to schools and institutes such as SAMSI that offer workshops on various topics in the field.

Daniel Taylor-Rodriguez at the podium

SAMSI postdoc Daniel Taylor-Rodriguez presenting at the Field of Dreams Conference.

Daniel and I had the opportunity to present our research along with other postdocs from institutes in the mathematical sciences at the conference.  It was a great way to exhibit how different examples of research in the mathematical and statistical fields of ecology, cancer research, topology, and structures tie together in the sciences. It also a way to demonstrate what types of work one can do and communicate to undergraduates the exciting opportunities there are in mathematical and statistical research.

crowd shot of the students at the conference

Students listen to the speakers intently.

One of the things that impressed me was the excitement and drive of the undergraduates attending this conference. At our SAMSI table in the evening, Daniel and I were able to talk to undergraduates about the undergraduate workshops SAMSI offers each year, which many were excited to hear about. The juniors and seniors asked insightful questions about SAMSI and what led Daniel and I to the field of statistics. It was also when we got the chance to hear his/her background, what their goals are, and what they want to do in the future. It was impressive to hear what they had to say. Some of the undergraduates already narrowed down to the exact field they wanted to go into as they already starting projects related to neuroscience, statistical ecology or biostatistics. The conference opened the undergraduates’ eyes to the possibility that they can succeed if they put themselves out there. They made the right first step, attending the field of dreams to network and create opportunities for themselves.  They will one day make up the field and I was fortunate enough to talk to them. I hope that I am able to attend more in the future.



SAMSI Postdoctoral Profile: Jyotishka Datta

Jyotishka's wife, Shalini, and Jyotishka with their dog, Max.

Jyotishka’s wife, Shalini, and Jyotishka with their dog, Max.

SAMSI postdoctoral fellow Jyotishka Datta decided not to follow the family tradition and become a doctor. Instead, he decided to follow his other passion, which was mathematics and statistics.

Students at Purdue

Left to right: Shaunak, Prashant, Aravind, Shabih, Saif, Ranjit and Jyotishka.

Jyotishka grew up in Kolkata, India. He went to Ramakrishna Mission Residential College Narendrapur, for his higher secondary education. This was one of the best schools in the region and here he had the opportunity to study with some of the brightest and extremely motivated students. It was then that he decided to pursue a career in a field of research.

Jyotishka went to the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI, Kolkata) for his B.Stat and M.Stat degrees. He developed a strong background in theoretical statistics and was introduced to programming and real-life applications in human genetics. “I had many wonderful teachers there. Not only did they inspire my love for Statistics and Probability, their teaching helped me in many ways on my path to become a researcher and teacher. One of them was Professor Partha Pratim Majumder. He is the head of the human genetics unit at ISI, and the director of the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics (NIBMG) in India. “He used interesting real life examples to demonstrate the need for powerful statistical methods in human genetics that inspired me to develop methods for complex, high dimensional genomic data. I fully realized the importance of his teaching only after I joined the ‘Beyond Bioinformatics’ program at SAMSI,” said Jyotishka.

Jyotishka with friends outside wearing suits

From left to right – Abhishek Sarkar, Anirban Bhattacharya, Nilabja Guha and Jyotishka Datta.

After working with Barclays Bank in Mumbai for a year developing policies and evaluation strategies for customers prior to their acquisition at the bank, Jyotishka came to the U.S. to study at Purdue University for his doctorate in Statistics. He started working with Alan Qi, who is an associate professor in the Departments of Computer Science, Statistics and Biology. After working for one year in Statistical Machine Learning with Prof. Qi, Jyotishka started working under the guidance of Jayanta K. Ghosh, who became his thesis advisor at Purdue. They worked on the theoretical aspects of multiple testing and model selection. “One day he showed me this new paper on the Horseshoe prior that had excellent numerical properties and was becoming very popular in the Bayesian community,” said Jyotishka. One aspect that needed to be looked at was the theoretical properties. After about a year, he could prove theorems that this horseshoe prior was asymptotically optimal.

One of the authors of the Horseshoe Prior was Nicholas Polson, professor at Chicago Booth School who visited Purdue in March, 2014 and they talked about these special class of priors. “I was also working on these priors for a different problem with Anindya Bhadra at Purdue who is also a visitor at SAMSI now. Anindya introduced me to Nick and he proposed this new idea that we can extend the Horseshoe prior to sharpen its ability to extract signals from noise. We named this prior ‘Horseshoe Plus’ prior,” explained Jyotishka.

He said it’s been nice to be able to collaborate with Anindya face-to-face at SAMSI as they begin to complete this research.

Receiving the Studden Award

Receiving William J. Studden award for an outstanding publication in a Mathematical Statistics Journal, from Jeff Roberts, Dean of the College of Science, Purdue University.

Currently Jyotishka is working with Duke Statistics professor David Dunson. They are working on Bayesian non-parametric analysis of ‘sparse’ point processes. This is motivated by a variety of application areas, where the interest is in flexible modeling of the intensity of ‘rare’ event realizations. One particular example is cancer genomic studies collecting data on rare variants, where the focus may be on assessing differences in the variant profile between two groups. There is a growing interest in this area as the common variants identified by the Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS) often account for a small fraction of heritability and susceptibility to a disease. This is also made challenging by the fact that the number of potential locations of these variants is massive but the intensity is zero in a vast majority of the locations. This also brings the issues of computational efficiency to the fore.

Jyotishka is also collaborating with Sandeep Dave, Associate Professor, Division of Oncology, at the Duke School of Medicine and they are studying RNA-seq analysis of diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL). “One of our main objectives is to build a robust supervised classifier to classify subjects into two known subtypes of DLBCL, namely ABC and GCB”.

Shalini with Jyotishka on his graduation day

Shalini with Jyotishka on his graduation day.

Jayanta Ghosh, his advisor at Purdue, was the first person to recommend to Jyotishka that he consider coming to SAMSI for a postdoctoral fellowship. And his good friend, Sanvesh Srivastava, who is a SAMSI second year postdoc this year, also told him about the various nice opportunities that this program offers to a postdoc.

When Jyotishka isn’t working at SAMSI, he likes to read books and occasionally write poetry and scripts for theatre. He was involved in theater at ISI and together with his friends started an inter-college drama festival at ISI. The idea was to create a platform for college students to gather and perform their own plays. Jyotishka also loves drawing and has a long-cherished dream of writing a graphical novel someday.

Jyotishka married Shalini in 2012. They have a dog, Max, who is a terrier. They love going for long walks with Max and exploring local family-owned restaurants and coffee shops. He also likes to blog. (Guess what he will get to do at SAMSI now?)

Students Tour GlaxoSmithKline and Learn about Bioinformatics at SAMSI Undergraduate Workshop

group shot of the workshop

Undergraduate students from across the U.S. at the workshop.

About 25 students from around the United States attended SAMSI’s undergraduate workshop October 23-24. Students got to hear about the exciting field of bioinformatics along with a visit to a local pharmaceutical company.

classroom of students sitting a tables

Students at the SAMSI workshop Friday morning.

The workshop opened with welcoming remarks by the Deputy Director of SAMSI Sujit Ghosh followed by introductions of SAMSI staffs and activities. Fred Wright from North Carolina State University (NCSU) talked about genomics and bioinformatics and how the intensity of information is nearly overwhelming, but there are emerging statistical techniques to use and process the flow of data.

Paul Brooks, Virginia Commonwealth University

Paul Brooks, Virginia Commonwealth University.

Paul Brooks, Virginia Commonwealth University, had a stimulating conversation with the students about several logistics of preparing application packages for graduate school and what kinds of things the Math and Stat departments would be looking for that might give the students a competitive advantage.

students on a bus for a field trip

On the way to GlaxoSmithKline.

In the afternoon after having a sumptuous lunch, the students and some of SAMSI’s staff had a real treat. They traveled together to the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline located only a few blocks from SAMSI to hear about how applied mathematicians and statisticians help with the drug development pipeline. Biologists and chemists rely greatly on the statisticians to help them interpret the results in the clinical trials, for example. Alan Menius and Katja Remlinger of GlaxoSmithKline hosted the students and took them on a tour of some of the labs. One of the participants noted that, “The speakers were down to Earth and the workshop was well set up.” Another students said, “I LOVED the tour. It was awesome to see an industry in which math is applied at a higher level every day.”

Later in the afternoon, a session on “Statistical Evolutionary Biology” was led by the SAMSI postdoc Chris Nasrallah with assistance from SAMSI postdocs Yize Zhao and Jyotishka Datta. The tutorial featured hands-on use of software to analyze evolutionary data.. And, Shyamal Peddada from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) gave a presentation on geometry in bioinformatics following a brief description of his own career path.

At the final panel session on Day 1, several of the graduate students and postdocs from SAMSI talked about what it’s like to be a graduate student or a postdoc and what students should think about as they begin developing their careers in mathematical sciences.

Students enjoyed a great barbeque dinner before returning to the hotel.

Alison Motsinger-Reif lecturing

Alison Motsinger-Reif, NCSU.

The next morning’s session started with a recap from Deputy Director Sujit Ghosh and then Alison Motsinger-Reif from NCSU gave an interesting talk about how bioinformatics is used in genetics and personalized medicine, which is an emerging field of work.

Jung-Ying Tzeng from NCSU presented the final talk of Day 2 which was “Regression Methods for Genomic Data Analysis.” Students left the workshop with a very positive attitude towards pursuing their career with further graduate studies; in fact one of the participants stated in her email to the Deputy Director, “I am very happy with the way you are steering SAMSI and from an undergraduate perspective the workshop was very compelling towards pursuing a graduate degree.”

The next undergraduate workshop will take place February 26-27 and will focus on the Ecology program. For more information or to register go to the SAMSI website. The deadline for submitting application is January 9, 2015.